Sustainable water

Sustainability hasn’t always been a criteria in planning water projects. All over the world large dams have led to social and ecological disasters.
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Duurzaamwater.jpgLarge-scale irrigation projects have directly or indirectly caused the drying up of rivers and lakes. The thoughtless pumping up of groundwater tables lowers the groundwater level and dries out the vulnerable ecosystems. Pollution of rivers and groundwater reserves have long-term adverse effects on public health and environment.

Too often we rely on technological solutions. Experience teaches us, here too, that we cannot “control” water systems with impunity. Therefore respect for natural water regimes and spaces for water (flood areas, wetlands) are also part of a durable water policy.

An integrated approach of the water question is essential for sustainable development: geographically integrated by considering water basins as the basis for the policy, temporally integral by taking into account the future generations, functionally integrated by taking account of the different functions including ecological, social and cultural functions, and organisationally integrated by involving all stakeholders.

Investing in social, technological, organisational and financial sustainability

If we want to meet the Millennium Development Goals concerning water by 2015, not only will investments have to be 2 to 3 times higher, but invested infrastructure has also to be used much more efficient. Merely counting on technology is not enough. The introduction of new funds too is just a drop in the ocean if it is not coupled to more transparent criteria and participation procedures. A programme that only emphasises social or institutional aspects makes no sense. For example, it is not efficient only setting up training programs (e.g. on the importance of hygiene), without offering something concrete. People quit. They also want tangible results. Therefore in the development of its water programmes PROTOS simultaneously takes into account the social, technical, organisational and financial components. By integrating these 4 categories at the same time, PROTOS makes sustainable projects happen.

The social component

Implementing a new infrastructure or technology implies among other things that you involve the villagers in planning, design and realisation. It also implies that you insert mechanisms that make them feel responsible for the maintenance and management. For this, in some regions, you can rely on existing traditions. Inhabitants of a community conduct tasks that benefit the whole village.

In order to make agreements on a social tariff (a tariff adapted to the income of each user) within the community, you can make use of consultation rounds. The gender aspect should receive attention as well. Do women participate? Are they allowed to speak in public in the presence of men? Can women and children take optimal advantage of the nearby and pure water? Do the men continue to determine how the women have to spend the liberated time? The municipality also needs to learn to communicate about water with other villages. Does the municipality know which villages/communities are willing to do efforts for getting a water well? How do you measure such willingness? How do you monitor that? Which villages are served first and why? How does the municipality transmit this to the villages left-out? There is not enough money to invest for everyone at the same time!

The technical component

An electric pump is of no use if there is no electricity. But you will also get problems with a hand driven water pump driven if you are not able to (let it) repair it. How is the technical formation interpreted and how is it coupled to agreements with local and regional authorities? An adapted technology is really only interesting if you can get spare parts for it on the spot. Using a natural spring under gravity could prevent these technology problems, provided the villagers understand that they need to maintain the water spring surroundings and need to ensure that the source does not get polluted. Is there a fence around the spring? What role do trees play? Do the inhabitants realise why animals shouldn’t come near the water well?
PROTOS wrote a short report about the technology subject: Les avancées en matière de Technologie Appropriée dans le domaine de l’eau, mars 2005, 4 p, french.

The organisational component

organisatorisch.JPGIt is not adequate to install a water well in a village if the villagers don’t know that this water is different from river water. A well is ok but only really gains importance if the villagers also get a better grip on hygiene and drainage. As it happens, research has shown that the number of water-related diseases decreases far more drastically if you couple the new water facility to a good hygiene training and make people responsible for it too (the importance of clean water – the danger of bacteria in river water – the necessity to avoid still standing water around the water point -...)! Are there villagers who are prepared to take care of this hygiene training? Is there a committee that looks after the water facility itself, who can carry out possible reparations and is aware of the financial implications?

The financial component

Often the villagers themselves bring together a very small part of the investments, or they choose to pay a very small amount of money for the potable water. This is mainly to raise their involvement. Because "for free is only for free" and then nobody feels responsible if something goes wrong. Do the villagers wish to make some savings? How much do they contribute? How is the money used?
The dynamics arising in a rural community around water gives the people new chances. It may even allow them to improve their situation financially, e.g. in the form of a home vegetable garden. Surpluses can be sold at a nearby market.


By simultaneously working on those four different components, PROTOS creates social, technical, organisational (institutional) and financial sustainability. No aspect is given priority to another. The key word for this approach is “participation”: working on planning, design, implementation and management together with the villagers. In this way water does not only become a final objective but especially becomes a means!